Sunday, May 20, 2018

Slim Creek to (near) Toba Inlet AKA: three men abreast across the coast range

“On soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars - Something good will come out of all things yet - And it will be golden and eternal just like that - There's no need to say another word.”

― Jack KerouacBig Sur

It was with a lot of excitement and I am sure a bit of unspoken nervousness that we set our alarms for 3:30 am from the comfort of our own beds in Squamish and went through the mental and physical checklists for the umpteenth time. Nervousness only for the scope of the journey ahead, not knowing what to expect from our route and maybe for what was to be expected of us as individuals and as a group. Tomorrow we would start our long walk that would take us from the low valleys and friendly terrain of the South Chilcotin mountains to the more wild and unknown to us high divide of the central coast range, covering roughly 200km in roughly 25 days.

The actual start of this trip began about a year ago. Chris and I had been casually chatting about spring trips. Chris had done a big traverse in Alaska years before and recalled the trip fondly, we discussed the options and made a pact to make something happen the following spring. Something long and something in the central coast range. The idea incubated over the remaining winter and following summer, spoken about as all wonderful yet big trip ideas are spoken about; with hushed tone, not wanting to jinx it.

In late November of this year after a night of eating, drinking and watching ski movies and slideshows as is our yearly tradition, we assembled for an early ski day at Paul Ridge that went bust almost immediately due to a stuck plow on the road. As we stood around in the parking lot looking at each other, wondering what to do, I mentioned the idea of our big ski traverse to Ryan. Ryan is a passionate angler and typically come Spring he is immersed in that world, skis safely waxed and put away till the early season snows, happy to hunt fish for our short summers. Ryan looked at me, then the sky then back at me and simply said, 'Ya, I am in to that'. With Scotty that was 4, the perfect size for a big spring trip. 2 tents and 2 stoves plus the added moral of a good sized group. We started to make plans.

The trip meetings occurred at our respective houses, everyone taking a turn to cook and make room for maps to be rolled out on floors and tables, discussions had until the late hours or until the scotch ran out. Slim Creek to Toba Inlet had been the trip that John Baldwin told us to do, without much delay when asked: 'what is the best ski traverse in the coast range?'. It was hard to argue with that. Add to that the remoteness of the latter part of the trip, the fact that there isn't a single trip report to be found anywhere on it and of course, the chance to see wild and mainly unknown to us ice-fields and peaks made this the perfect trip idea in our eyes too and gave us our own motivations.

By January we were gaining momentum and all busy with our own preparatory tasks when I got a late night call from Scotty. There was steel in his voice and I could tell something was on his mind. "I need to tell you whats on my mind....I just can't do this trip". Scotty had been a big part of this trip so far, he had to back out of a similar outing in the north the spring previous and I know had badly he wanted to come. I also knew that Scotty is a loving father to his son Kai and that they were expecting another young one come Feb, it as with a heavy heart that realty sunk in for him and he had to make the call to bow out. As Scotty explained his situation I understood completely, my respect and admiration for him growing all the while. Personal sacrifice for family, an enviable trait. I hoped I could do the same thing.

With the switch to a group of three some last minute changes were in order, most notably the tent and stove plan. We found a 4 person 4-season tent from MEC and decided on one stove, the venerable Whisperlite (another story, stove failed on the first day). Plans started to re-crystalize and while being sad about the lack of Scotty's company on this trip, the three of us were still very much in and dedicated to the undertaking at hand.

As the departure day drew closer, the mountains ostensibly maintained their winter personas. Spring was yet to 'spring' and sets of stacked storms from a stubborn low originating in the gulf of Alaska repeatedly bombarded the central coast ranges with dumps of snow. We had all agreed to adjust our lives to make this trip happen but we all had limits to that, work and commitments can only be pushed so far out before the ladder gets too long and the bottom slips out. Finally on April 18th things started to clear and a ridge of high pressure built up as the Alaskan low broke down, a week of sun balls were in the forecast. Sweet maria we are actually going to do this thing! With excitement, we loaded up and drove out to Pemberton, flying in our 3 food caches the morning of the 20th. The long flight in with the A-STAR afforded us the chance to scope our route from above while buzzing around to each cache location, the terrain looked...huge. With caches dug in and fresh photos of the perceived cruxes captured, we were ready to go.

The next day we drove to Gun Lake and eventually, Slim Creek where we loaded up a couple of geriatric sleds that would get us up the 40km of logging road to near the head of Slim Creek and the official start of the trip. Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the obligatory early AM feed at the Reynolds in Lilloet which we were at present, recovering from. If you are in the mood for a classic 'Denver' omelette complete with toast and hashbrowns washed down with all the coffee you can drink whilst in the company of an odd couple mix of biologists and BC Hydro workers, look no further then the Reynolds. After the feed we were in need of more coffee so we grabbed a nice espresso from the Rugged Bean and that takes us back to the current moment and the loading of the aforementioned sleds (we will return in June to pick them up, they're currently parked on the side of the road)

Once we got started and like on any long trip, time blurs together a little and its challenging to divide the individual days from the greater experience. Rather then go into a long winded description of the trip details, I will allow the photos and photo descriptions to illustrate and describe the rest. I will say that this trip was one of the best I have ever done and that we are all better friends now, which for me is a pretty big gauge of success. As with most outings in the mountains for me, the technical details and minutia fade with time and I end of recalling two things; the joy and happiness of being in the mountains with good friends and the moments of calmness, when all you think about is what is ahead of you, work and everyday town life both being strange concepts of seemingly little importance.

On a more personal note, this trip had minor cathartic elements for me. In February of this year a very dear friend died from a devastating and stubborn disease. In the months leading up to the trip I visited him often and was able to tell him how I felt about him and how much he has meant to me as a friend and mentor. Guillermo entered my life while my parents were finalizing their messy divorce, him along with two others, Mike Pollard and Jon Popowich represented solid ground to me as an impressionable young person and I gravitated towards them. Together we four visited the mountains consistently in summer and winter, each finding ways to make the trips work while we moved to different towns or countries, in a commitment to our friendships and each other. Even now I look for ways to summarize how important and influential these years were for me and yet can not. How we continued to be best friends and well, family.

I knew that on this trip with so much ground to cover and time to think, I would be able to say goodbye to G in a way that felt meaningful. Mike had passed away a few years ago suddenly and I carry a stuff sack he owned with me in the mountains on every outing as a lunch bag so I can still feel some of his presence. With G I can carry his many philosophy lessons (he taught the subject) and hundreds (thousands?) of precious memories of our time together laughing with Mike and Jon. In a way, the mountains and this group are inexplicably linked together and I cannot be in the mountains without thinking about them just as we couldn't all get together without talking about the them and making plans. In this way I knew this trip could be difficult for me. Saying goodbye to best friends isn't or shouldn't be a quick process.

In the weeks of our ski traverse, some of my favourite moments were when we were spread out, 100m or so apart for hours on end, linked in process together yet somewhat on our own. During some of these moments I could feel myself slowing down a little and thinking about Mike and G, eyes welling with tears behind dark glacier sunglasses. The mountains have a way of pulling these emotions out of me and also healing me, as I have learned.

I remember travelling on a long section of glacier around 2/3 of the way through our trip. Up ahead, I could see Chris pausing, looking terse and scanning for the way forward. I joined him and a few minutes later, Ryan arrived. We could see the next section unfold ahead of us and we laughed about some inside joke before slowly leaving our little perch and starting down a steep pitch and later, up an icefall to a high col and one of the best campsites on the trip. I could see the happiness in my friends faces as we set off and I remember thinking that there was nowhere else I'd rather be in the world then right here with my two good friends in this wild place.

Punching in co-ordinates for our food drop.

Digging cache one.

All you need for a few weeks. We decided on no pulks which in hindsight was a good idea, the terrain of the high Toba divide would be tedious with one.

Day 1: Loading up the sleds.
As we were speeding up the logging road on the tiny sled, me hanging on the back seat directly behind Ryan we hit a bump and my left leg popped off the foot rest and into the snow. I immediately felt a sharp pain on my ACL side of the knee and jumped off the sled. It felt not great but OK and continually improved throughout the trip.

Upper Slim Creek. Soon after this shot we were able to 'coast' almost 7km down to some fresh water, was a highlight of the first leg of the trip.

The only fresh water on the trip, otherwise all snowmelt. It tasted really good.

Moving into the high country of upper Slim Creek.

Camp 1: Chris with kitchen

The scene of another long coast, Ryan led this wonderfully and we probably side-hilled for 5-6km to the first major glacier.

Getting established..

Camp scene..

Wolvernine track. Interestingly, we saw plenty of Wolverine tracks as well as Grizzly tracks crossing lower cols (2100m) but no actual animal sightings...Amazing that these guys would travel through such complex terrain.

Camp sight above the Bishop Glacier at the "Four Way Stop", see tent on upper left.

Standard kitchen set up.


One of the themes on this trip was glacial change, on a few instances we needed to find alternate routes through areas of major change. In the above photo, 700 feet of vertical ice had been lost and a large lake had developed where there was a simple glacier before. This caused us 1 extra day of travel above Mt. Tisiphone and what would become a memorable route into the high country as a bypass.

High camp dry out session.

Toba mtn. high route.
Toba mtn high route

Feeling small was another theme on this trip. Once out of the Chilcotin's the mountains took on a completely different character, steep side walls and valleys and intensive glaciation/icefalls became de rigueur.

None of us will forget this sunset which was right after a 18 hour storm.


Clearing trend. We had 5 days in the tent waiting out storms, the rest was almost perfect blue sky.

Chris and un-named icefalls.
The only gear issue was had was when I accidentally dropped my ski and it took off for about 50m into a rock garden. Chris retrieved it for me and had a somber tone upon his return, 'we have a problem' he said. This was a bit of a low-point for me in that I felt I had jeopardized the trip by a careless action. The boys took it in stride, we fixed the skin and we carried on.

Steep bootpack.

Arriving at cache 2

Gorilla tape and epoxy fixed the skin. I could barely notice a difference in glide and it held up for the entire trip.

The cabana. Having a 4 person tent for 3 was really nice.

Small repair after a tongue hinge blow-out.

This 'rock camp' was after a slightly stressful day of route finding in low light. We had to navigate down steep terrain to an icefall, make a transition and then skin out to then navigate down a slope with large crevasses and bergschrunds. We were all tired at this camp. One major memory I have of this was getting the tent set up in a robot state and laughing later as we all relaxed and started to look forward to the next day. The terrain would keep this character for the remainder of the trip.

A long day of whiteout navigation...

Descending the 'notch' down from the highpoint of the trip.

Surveying an icefall we needed to cross. Chris pointing.


So much blue sky.

Me and Ryan.

Ryan and Chris.

Mt. Filer

The easter island as we called it due to the rocks on the left looking like the Moai on Rapa Nui AKA Easter Island.

We were continually amazed at how steep the valleys were, Escape from a lot of the last 2/3 of the route would be very involved.

Gaining the wild ridge near Mt. Tahumming was a real highlight for us. 

Ridge, 2 km long. Incredible ambience.

Building a campsite. We were anticipating a big storm here so made the camp very secure. We stayed for a day and a half and it snowed 35cm. 

Storm bound. We always had things to chat about and we were always positive. We had three books between us, I read 1 and re-read another whilst the tome, entitled 'Sapiens' was narrowly avoided.


Nearing the end of our trip on the lower Tahumming icefield.

Sz 3 avalanche, the first significant avalanche we had seen all trip, the slope above the cliffs is what we need to gain. Same feature and aspect as slide.

Cache meal...

There were literally hundreds of beautiful granite crack climbs on the walls behind the tent from 4-8 pitches.

Enjoying chili and cheese!

Exploring the icefall to avoid the hanging slope and gain the upper bench and the final leg of the trip.

Scouting for alternates around the icefall.

After 2 days of waiting and trying to get around this feature we made the call to end the trip here. We had one shot to get up it before we lost the cold nights and the subsequent re-freeze and got tied up in the icefall trying to find a safe route through. After awaking early to discover no crust and an isothermal snowpack at large, we attempted a work around to no avail and re grouped above. It was a hard call for us, we had all conceived the end point to be the ocean and we were still a couple of days or so away. In the end I am happy for our decision as hard as it was to make at the time. I am grateful that we all came to the same conclusion on our own and there was little debate.


We flew to Whistler and arrived at Nita Lake Lodge for lunch while the bemused patrons looked on us with curious expressions. Here in the valley it was 30 degrees and people are doing things with shorts and t-shirts. We had full winter clothing and ski boots on whilst enjoying multiple beers and fresh salads and burgers.

A huge thanks to Chris and Ryan for such a great trip, their good nature and for always being up for an absurd joke. I am fortunate to have such great friends to share these experiences with, for me they are always equally important.